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Kerry Kennedy not guilty of driving while impaired

First Published      Last Updated Feb 28 2014 08:59 am

White Plains, New York - After nearly 20 months of buildup, the misdemeanor trial of Kerry Kennedy ended Friday in a breakneck blur, as jurors took less than two hours to find her not guilty of driving under the influence of a drug.

The four-day trial, which featured a riveting turn on the witness stand by Kennedy, 54, was centered on an act that neither she nor prosecutors dispute: On July 13, 2012, she drove her Lexus SUV erratically after swallowing Zolpidem, a generic form of the sleep medication Ambien. She sideswiped a tractor-trailer on a highway in Westchester County before she was found, slumped over her wheel, her car stalled on a local road.

Kennedy has maintained that she took the pill accidentally, mistaking it for medication she took for a thyroid condition. She testified Wednesday that she did not realize her mistake until well after the accident.

At issue was whether Kennedy, the former wife of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and a daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, should have been aware that she was feeling the drug's soporific effects, was swerving and driving erratically, and stopped the car.

The case, which was given to the jury late Thursday afternoon, attracted so much attention that the county had to shift locations to one of its largest courtrooms in Westchester County Courthouse, from its original venue, the North Castle Town Court. Yet all this fuss and stir was over a misdemeanor, for a crime with scarcely a victim.

One of Kennedy's lawyers, Gerald B. Lefcourt, in his closing argument on Thursday, contended that the jury had "not heard any evidence from the prosecutor, who has the burden of proof that Kerry Kennedy did realize she accidentally took the sleeping pill Zolpidem and continued to drive."

"This is a case with not a reasonable doubt - there is overwhelming doubt," Lefcourt said.

To convict Kennedy, he concluded, the jury would have to believe that "she's a callous person and knowing she was under the influence of Zolpidem and continued to drive."

The fact that Kennedy was tried before a jury was unusual. Although there are 2,500 cases brought every year in Westchester County for driving under the influence of either alcohol or drugs, they are typically bargained down to a noncriminal violation requiring a guilty plea and a fine.

She had faced up to a year in jail if convicted.